still unseen limits
of american politics
EMPTINESS AND CONSCIOUSNESS
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many
books and articles dealing with international politics. His
columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington
Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article was originally published
in The Daily
of his emptiness,
a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm.
Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time
Nowadays, in the
midst of near-perpetual scandal, both Democrats and Republicans
are variously criticized for failing to fix a beleaguered country.
But America’s core problems are not remediable in politics.
By itself, no American government — no president, no congress,
no promised barrage of “transformative” legislation,
no purported investigations — can halt the corrosive withering
of heart, body, mind and spirit that most deeply imperils these
no matter how well intentioned, informed, or generously bipartisan,
no proposed rescue program can ever do more than tinker ineffectually
at the outer margins of what really matters.
is plausible, of course, to expect certain auspicious increments
of progress from particular statutes and institutions, but nothing
that could meaningfully drown out the lamentations of our lonely
American “crowd.” Driven almost single-mindedly
by considerations of taxation, commerce, and consumption, our
system of governance has managed to produce a sorely bitter
amalgam of plutocracy and mob rule. Unsurprisingly, our hoped-for
national rescue must now lie elsewhere, that is, suitably far
beyond the always-secondary spheres of government, law and economics.
crowd,” warned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard,
“is untruth.” Within our current American crowd
(Freud would have called it a “horde,” Nietzsche
a "herd," and Jung, a “mass”), loudly
proclaimed differences remain essentially beside the point.
This is because no purposeful national renewal, let alone a
renewed “greatness,” can ever originate from politics.
Whether Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, political
behavior is merely what the philosophers and the social scientists
would both call a “reflection.”
perhaps, every society ultimately mirrors the sum total of its
constituent human “souls.” These individual souls,
seeking some form or another of apt “redemption,”
can never be healed by any postures of shallow imitativeness,
mass taste, or empty slogans. Before there is any genuine mending
of America, there must first take place a proper transformation
of its citizenry.
pertinent problems here are patently stark, but they are not
unfathomable. In fact, it's not really all that complicated.
Briefly put, we Americans timorously inhabit a society so numbingly
craven and so openly false that even our visceral melancholy
has become contrived.
is no call here for prescriptions to be offered sotto voce.
For societies huddling uneasily at the edges of history —
and America is quintessentially just such a society —
emptiness is not whispered or complicated. Always, it radiates
in both directions, continuously, from individual to collective,
and vice versa.
is still more necessary detail. Wallowing in the dim twilight
of a near-desperate conformance, we the people display infinite
forbearance for surface thinking and demeaning amusements. With
its so many misdirected resentments, our people still generally
hide from the most basic and indispensable affirmations of personal
intellect. Now, unambiguously, America actively cultivates a
collective posture of anti-reason.
time, it becomes a profoundly lethal spirit.
it is today the principal animating ethos of American politics.
reads serious books these days? Let us be candid. Virtually
none of our national leaders could answer “yes”
to this question, and their acknowledged incapacity usually
turns out to be a tangible political asset. In other words,
most Americans generally loathe any hint or obligation of an
intellectual life, and many prefer that their elected political
representatives share openly in this conspicuous hatred.
is more. Although many Americans remain seemingly content with
still-latent hopes or expectations for personal wealth, even
the richest among us may actually be deprived. To be sure, while
grimly resigned to a dreary future of suffocating banalities
and unsatisfying work, even the most “well-off”
Americans may lurch thoughtlessly from one personal forfeiture
to the next, convinced that erudition creates a needless burden,
and that cultivated rancor offers a commendable substitute.
certain basic truths in America remain entirely unhidden. Expressed
as genre, the “life of the mind” in our distracted
country has become a discernibly thin text, one best categorized
under a heading of “fiction.” Ralph Waldo Emerson's
earlier advice that we Americans should seek “plain living
and high thinking” has already been fully reversed, or
"turned on its head." Unassailably, even our best
universities are quickly becoming little more than expensive
training schools, starkly (and sometimes proudly) bereft of
any tangible “higher learning.”
the so-called “Trump University” was never an entirely
unique or singularly egregious manipulation of traditional intellectual
standards. Rather, its plainly grotesque model of “education”
was presaged by some of our long-standing and more genuinely
authentic universities. In fact, it is not uncommon today for
even the most elite educational institutions to cheerfully exchange
academic legitimacy for promises of cash on the barrelhead.
increasingly widespread calls for “diversity,” our
national landscape is largely homogeneous on certain core matters
of a deeper significance. Wherever one looks, we the people
are no longer motivated by much of any enduring human value.
Generally, for example, we don't look for equanimity or balance
as a healing counterpoint to distressingly frenetic lives. Instead,
we search constantly and vainly for expanding opportunities
to buy into an unsatisfying life of narrow imitation, one dedicated
to assorted empty pleasures and easily-available chemical diversions.
wit, tens of millions of our more-or-less exhausted citizens
now consume enough alcohol and drugs to suffocate any still-lingering
wisdom and to drown out whole oceans of sacred poetry.
not everything is obvious. There are some distinctly consequential
intellectual nuances to our dilemma. Accordingly, it is possible
for we the people to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the
world. Somehow, however, our leveling mass culture has managed
to produce both kinds of loneliness.
ahead, before a more noble and generous America can be born
from any such bifurcated loneliness, we will first have to learn
to look diligently beneath the news.
the moment, whatever is being decided in politics, we Americans
will be carried forth not by any identifiable nobility of “high
thinking and plain living,” but instead by sorrowful eruptions
of private fear and collective agitation. At times, we the people
may wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our increasingly
battered and battering country will likely still impose upon
us the hideously merciless rhythms of a grinding and unstoppable
machine. Among other things, the expected end of all this breathless
delirium could keep us from remembering who we once were, and,
even more importantly, who we once might have become.
politics can never save us, where then shall we turn? What,
if anything, can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad
national clockwork? We routinely pay lip service to the high
ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no
one truly cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only
for effect or ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations
of the United States have already become the insignificant province
of a tiny and grievously irrelevant minority.
didn't always have to be this way. In fact, we Americans inhabit
the one society that could have been different. Once, we possessed
a commendably unique potential to nurture individuals to become
more than just cogs in a compliant machine. Emerson, after all,
had described us optimistically as a people guided by industry
however, our true motivators lie more obviously in “fitting
in,” in anger, in greed, in fear, and in a perpetual trembling.
spite of an insistently proud claim to “rugged individualism,”
we Americans are shaped most decisively by the mass. As visible
manifestations, our fragmented and inelegant society positively
bristles with annoying jingles, coarse hucksterism, infantile
allusions, and telltale equivocations. Surely, we must soon
inquire: Isn't there anything more to this noisy and suffocating
country than an illiterate politics, raw commerce and hideously
celebrate myself, and sing myself,” said the poet Walt
Whitman, but today the American Self is under steady assault
by a vast and rancorous mediocrity, and also by a literally
the end, credulity remains America's worst enemy. Our still
willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption
can somehow lie in politics describes a potentially fatal disorder.
To be sure, many critical social and economic issues do need
to be addressed further by our government, but so too must our
deeper problems be solved at the “molecular” or
exquisitely personal human level.
the end, this is the only level of any real change and transformation,
a level that is not a mere reflection.
in such matters, history deserves a cherished pride of place.
A threatened civilization too often compromises with its underlying
afflictions. To restore us, as a nation, to long-term health
and real potential, we the people must first learn to look usefully
beyond a perpetually futile faith in politics.
is only when such a gainful swerve of consciousness can become
a fully irreversible gesture — only when we finally choose
to acknowledge the critically vital correlations between individual
human growth, intellectual examination and societal harmony
— that we Americans can reasonably hope to mend an otherwise